Subject: [VIEWS] All About Eve: Race,
and Science: Clay Farris Naff
NOTE: Please read the hyper-links listed
below this article for a more complete picture and solemn reality of the issues
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Metanexus: Views. 2003.01.20. 4141 words
"I have a dream," declared Martin Luther King, Jr.
"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where
they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of
"I have a dream today.
"I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips
presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will
be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will
be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk
together as sisters and brothers.
"I have a dream today.
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill
mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the
crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be
revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
"This is our hope"
"In dreams begins responsibility," said William Butler Yeats, and to
one's hopes, one must work. So, now we have responsibilities to carry out
and work to do, but how are we doing?
This is the subject of today's column by Clay Naff, who writes:
"We start with a quiz: what did Eve look like? Quickly, now! Sorry,
no prize for volunteering the answer I have in mind. If you're anything like
me, your image of Eve is quite distinct: you shut your eyes and see her,
standing innocently nude by the Tree of Knowledge, her long blonde hair
framing blue eyes and tumbling down to conceal her milky white breasts. Yet
science tells us quite a different story: Eve, or at least mitochondrial Eve
(about whom more later), was a sub-Saharan African, almost certainly short,
dark-skinned and dark-eyed. The interesting question, though, is not who is
right. The interesting question, in view of how religion and science have
dealt with race in the past, is whether either institution can overcome
their legacies of brutal injustice and malicious myth to play a truly
constructive role in getting race right."
Today's columnist, Clay Farris Naff is the Executive Director of the Center
for the Advancement of Rational Solutions (CARS) in Lincoln, Nebraska, as
well as the moderator for the Metanexus Discussion Group FUTURES, which
discusses the "future of technology, society, and spirituality". To
subscribe, please write to <FUTURES@LISTSERV.METANEXUS.NET>. His
column, Defusing the Neuron Bomb, about the mentality of violence in
religion, appeared on Metanexus: Views on 2002.10.16, and his column Not
Recommended: On Evolution and Academic Freedom appeared on the 2002.12.12
eidrion of Metanexus:Views.
-- Stacey E. Ake
Subject: All About Eve: Race, Religion and Science
From: Clay Farris Naff
"Among the words that can be all things to all men, the word 'race' has a
fair claim to being the most common, the most ambiguous, and the most
-- Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition, 1937.
We start with a quiz: what did Eve look like? Quickly, now!
there's no prize for volunteering the answer I have in mind. If you're
anything like me, your image of Eve is quite distinct: you shut your eyes
and see her, standing innocently nude by the Tree of Knowledge, her long
blonde hair framing blue eyes and tumbling down to conceal her milky white
Yet science tells us quite a different story: Eve, or at least
mitochondrial Eve (about whom more later), was a sub-Saharan African, almost
certainly short, dark-skinned and dark-eyed.
The interesting question, though, is not who is right. The
question, in view of how religion and science have dealt with race in the
past, is whether either institution can overcome their legacies of brutal
injustice and malicious myth to play a truly constructive role in getting
* * *
Writers often strain to draw connections between science and religion.
In the matter of race, however, they come free and easy. For much of the
last two centuries, science and religion have been the pincers that held in
place a system of worldwide racism. Both institutions have deeply
records of abuse. Yet each has also had an important role to serve in
righting past wrongs.
Religion, with its far longer history, got a handle on race
than science. Mind you, it would take a survey course in world religions to
capture all of the nuances of race and religion, and frankly I wouldn't be
qualified to teach it. With the proviso that other religions have sins on
their hands too, I will concentrate on Christianity in the New World.
That history begins with the calamitous arrival of the
Spanish in the
Americas. Jared Diamond, in his remarkable book Guns, Germs and Steel,
recounts the events of a fateful day in November 1532, when the troops of
the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro met Atahualpa, head of the Inca
Empire, "the largest and most advanced state in the New World."
Although Pizarro at first made friendly overtures, religion
as an incendiary issue between the two sides. Diamond quotes at length from
eyewitness accounts of the Spanish:
Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicente de Valverde to go speak to [Emperor]
Atahualpa, and to require Atahualpa in the name of God and of the King of
Spain that Atahualpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and
to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain. Advancing with a cross in
one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the Indian troops
up to the place where Atahualpa was, the Friar thus addressed him: 'I am a
Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like manner
I come to teach you.'"
It may come as no great shock to modern readers to learn
did not immediately cast off his own status as a god-king and humbly submit
to this "Lord Jesus" of whom he had just heard. Friar de Valverde,
appears to have been taken aback.
The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, 'Come out! Come out, Christians!
Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God. ... Why remain polite
and servile toward this overproud dog when the plains are full of Indians?
March out against him, for I absolve you!'
A massacre of unarmed civilians ensued, and with it began a
centuries-long European campaign of slaughter, subjugation, and coerced
conversion to Christianity.
In North America, too, race and religion reduced the American Indian to a
'savage,' with no more rights than the buffalo of the plains. Native
Americans were massacred, driven off their lands, and even deliberately
infected with smallpox. Eventually, however, a more humane policy of
"Kill the Indian, save the man," proclaimed Gen. Richard Pratt, the
commander of an Indian POW camp at the founding of the first off-reservation
federal boarding school in 1879. With that prophetic motto, a campaign of
cultural and religious obliteration began. A hundred years would pass before
its tide could be turned. Christian fervor provided much of the impetus that
kept it going. A 1999 Associated Press reported observed:
"The government bureaucrats and Christian missionaries who molded the
boarding school system had the same idea. Indians must be forced to follow
'the superior methods of the white man,' Wellington Rich, the first
superintendent of the Phoenix Indian School, said in 1890. Former students
and boarding school historians say the methods were often violent and
humiliating -- forcing children to eat lye soap for speaking their tribal
languages, cropping their long hair, paddling them for having Indian
Christianizing the tens of thousands of Indian pupils remained an important
goal of the boarding schools within living memory. A Yakima woman recalls:
"They stripped us of our language. They stripped us of our religious
beliefs. They stripped us of our family life, our family values. They
stripped us from our culture."
If missionary work provided the moral cover for this colonial onslaught,
Christianity had another card to play when it came to slavery. According to
the Old Testament, Noah, that good man, took umbrage when his son, Ham, saw
him drunk and naked. In retribution, Noah put a curse on Ham's son and all
"Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. He
said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of
Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents
of Shem and may Canaan be his slave.' " Genesis 9:25-27:
Slavers conveniently assumed this passage to refer to Africans. Why the
offspring of Ham should be any darker than Noah is not clear, but perhaps
the common superstition about curses leaving marks sufficed. In any event,
this passage became the premiere Biblical justification of American slavery.
Congressman James Henry Hammond of North Carolina argued for the permanence
of the "peculiar institution" of black enslavement before the House
"The doom of Ham has been branded on the form and features of his African
descendants. The hand of fate has united his color and destiny. Man cannot
separate what God hath joined."
Asians, too, were assaulted by religion on their arrival in
World. Historian Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, in his book The Chinese Experience in
"As soon as the Chinese arrived in America, church workers sought to
them to Christianity, but the majority of nineteenth century Chinese
retained their religious traditions, which were syncretic, tolerant, and
nondogmatic. ... With such a seemingly rational religious tradition in
China, it is understandable that American missionaries had difficulty in
converting the Chinese to the more exclusive and dogmatic Christianity. But
they quickly seized the opportunities afforded by racial discrimination and
social injustice as issues to make their Christian God omnipresent to
Chinese immigrants, and to act as liaison between Christian workers and
In truth, conversion to Christianity was held out as a
ticket to decent
treatment. But the Chinese immigrant communities were loathe to accept the
offer. Again, Tsai:
"This mentality was reinforced by flagrant anti-Chinese
racism. If the
Chinese were encouraged to go to the whit man's heaven, why could they not
freely immigrate to the white man's country? In his reasoning, the Chinese
immigrant could discern a patent hypocrisy among white Christians whose
Bible taught justice and love but whose deeds against the Chinese were a
shameful and undeniable record of injustice and violence."
* * *
Science got off to at least as bad a start. In the mid-19th
theories of race blossomed within French, German, British and American
scientific circles. Many were influenced by the Comte de Gobineau's
four-volume Essay on the Inequality of Human Races. Others felt the need for
scientific buttresses to support the expansion of European colonialism. All
assumed the white man to be the pinnacle of humanity, and classed and ranked
all other races as either separate species or as degenerate spinoffs.
The late Stephen J. Gould tells us, in The Mismeasure of Man, that these
competing "scientific" theories of anthropology were known as
monogenism. The latter proved more popular, but only because most scientists
in those early Darwinian days were Christian creationists, and monogenism
fit better with the biblical story of Adam and Eve.
Ironically, to explain the wide variation in human
monogenists resorted to a kind of Lamarckian theory of adaptation. They
argued that environmental factors - climate was a leading candidate - had
caused permanent changes in people as they strayed farther and farther from
the Garden of Eden. Whites, naturally, had degraded the least.
Not that polygenism necessarily broke with Bible. Louis
leading American proponent of polygenism in the mid-19th century and a
devout creationist, hit on ingenious means of reconciling the two. Agassiz
"The Bible does not speak about parts of the world unknown to the
the tale of Adam refers only to the origin of Caucasians. Negroes and
Caucasians are as distinct in the mummified remains of Egypt as they are
today. If human races were the product of climatic influence, then the
passage of three thousand years would have engendered substantial
The "science" of craniology, or the measuring of
heads, sprang up to
supply data in support of both brands of scientific racism. Skulls were
collected by the thousands; brains were scooped and stored in formaldehyde.
In a 1974 book, Carl Sagan recalls his astonishment at walking through the
Museum of Man in Paris and seeing jar after jar of perfectly preserved heads
and brains. Looking at one, he mused, "Perhaps he was a sailor who had
jumped ship in the tropics only to be captured and executed, his head
involuntarily drafted in the cause of science. Except that he was not being
studied; he was only being neglected, among the other severed heads."
If so, science was just warming up. Francis Galton, the
eccentric cousin of Darwin, founded the eugenics movement, aimed at
improving the genetic stock of humanity through selective breeding and
sterilization. Naturally, race became an instant criterion for quality.
The United States enthusiastically embraced forced
by the 1927 Supreme Court decision in Buck vs. Bell (in which Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes declared that "three generations of imbeciles are
state governments went on to sterilize upwards of 100,000 people. Statistics
on the race of those sterilized seem to be unavailable, but there can be no
doubt that racism and eugenics were fraternal twins. The craze for eugenics
laws was accompanied by a surge in antimiscegenation (race mixing) laws, and
Congress passed explicitly racist immigration laws, intended to keep out all
but the whitest of Europeans.
If anything were needed to reveal the unscientific nature
movement, the effort to classify Jews meets the case. As scholar Robert
Singerman of the University of Florida notes, in the late 19th and early
20th centuries, "Racial explanations [in America] for Jewish
were abundant, often couched in descriptions of the Jews as a non-Caucasian,
oriental people, inherently incapable of absorbing Anglo-Saxon
It would be easy to dismiss all this social Darwinism as
but for two embarrassing facts: first, white supremacist racial theory was
mainstream science until quite recently. Second, the scientific enterprise
continues to produce claims that a 19th century racist, after boning up on
genetics, would find entirely congenial: Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein,
Charles Murray and other I.Q. determinists have published articles and books
in the last few decades that, as Cornell West sums up, "suggest that
prevailing evidence leads to the conclusion that blacks are, in some sense,
* * *
So much for a summary of the sins of science and religion.
What of their
roles in overcoming the terrible legacy of racism?
Religion, it must be said, made the first moves. Just as
relied on the Bible to justify slavery, the Abolitionists drew from the same
well for their fervent opposition. However, it must also be said that they
drew far less water from that wellspring. The Bible everywhere approves
slavery (though the words are frequently softened in translation), while
offering only veiled solace to the Abolitionist. As an antebellum
pamphleteer wrote: "The practice of human slavery is not condemned
Scriptures by that name, nor mentioned in any of our common law definitions
by the same name. But it is condemned in the Scriptures under other names,
and by descriptions, plainly and severely." Unfortunately, the
condemnation did not appear plain to most.
More than a century later, the civil rights movement
coalesced around a
religious vision of justice. No one did more to articulate that vision than
the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. But in the campaign for equal rights, the
unit of organization was the black church and the overarching structure was
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In response, mainstream American religion dismantled
racism. The American Baptist Convention, in 1964, adopted a resolution that
began: "We believe that the moral issues posed by patterns of
and segregation in community life make it imperative that American Baptist
agencies, local churches, ministers and laity become actively involved in
community efforts to create an open society." Some churches found
change more difficult than others. It took a special revelation from God to
overturn the exclusionary policies of the Church of the Latter Day Saints,
widely known as the Mormons. Why He waited until 1978 is a mystery.
In any event, congregational integration has proceeded even
Curiously, change has been most profound in newly formed evangelical
"megachurches," rather than in liberal wing of Protestantism.
it continues, even as the American people increasingly marry - or at least
become parents - across racial lines.
* * *
And the other half of the pincers? Science, unlike religion, does not have a
social agenda per se. Nevertheless, in pursuit of accurate knowledge about
humans, it has recently uncovered data that demolishes most if not all of
the pseudoscientific racism of the past.
I won't rehearse the arguments over I.Q., except to note that the whole idea
of a single property known as g, or general intelligence, has been deeply
undermined. In an age of increasing specialization, it now seems plain that
a person can be a genius in one field and a moron in another. Pablo Picasso,
for instance, reportedly could not so much as balance a checkbook. Not that
the greatest and wealthiest artist of the 20th century had to. Einstein
was a regular Einstein when it came to the cosmos, but like your present
writer he was no fashion genius.
More important than the I.Q. wars is our new knowledge of humanity's genetic
history. No informed person can any longer speak of "black" or
traits. Research shows that there is more genetic variety among the peoples
of Africa than among any other people on earth. Apart from the
used to identify individuals only about 1 percent of Europeans or Asians are
genetically distinguishable from their group, whereas if you pick 100 modern
Africans at random, you can expect that 37 of them will show significant
This squares perfectly with modern "out-of-Africa" theory. Supported
variety of evidence, it says that our forebears lived for millions of years
in Africa, and only emerged to roam the world in the last 100,000 years or
so. It stands to reason, then, that the genetic variation among the
emigrants would be far less than that to be found within Africa. And that is
what research verifies. Indeed, Jared Diamond identifies no less than five
"races" in Africa, not counting the whites who emigrated there a few
Which brings us back to Eve. Science has contributed to a shifting
perspective on race by introducing us to Mitochondrial Eve. She was our most
recent matrilineal ancestor, the mother who gave us all our mitochondria. We
still have no idea who exactly she was, but we know she must have lived, and
we're fairly certain she lived in Africa some 200,000 years ago. The Ya-Ya
sisterhood of women is real!
As is the brotherhood of man. Y-chromosome Adam, the most recent common male
ancestor of us all also appears to have been African, but his dating is a
bit more uncertain. The likelihood that his life coincided with
Mitochondrial Eve's is very low. But what does it matter if we can no
longer take literally the fable of Adam and Eve? We have gained reliable
knowledge of a more important truth: we are all close relatives, kith and
kin six billion strong.
In short, race, though in some ways real, fails to be determinative.
Tempting though the stereotypes might be, you cannot wander through a
hospital's neonatal ward and predict by race that this baby will be an NBA
star, and that one will be an engineer, and this one a coal miner. Only the
particular genome of the baby coupled with her social and physical
environment can do that. However, since race continues to be part of that
social environment, it continues to play a strong role in the shaping
* * *
So where do we band of brothers and sisters go from here? Great race dangers
remain, and new ones are on the horizon. While mainstream religion has
shifted its bed, rivulets of racism continue to feed angry, violent sects
such as the Identity Christians of Idaho. Dismayingly, hateful religion
appears to be on the rise in America. Mainstream religion can and should do
more to redress its racist past and delegitimize present bigotry.
And what of science? Although the genome era has only just dawned, we may be
confident that it has established one fact: the differences in our skins,
noses, eyes, and hair are, in the words of one writer, "profoundly
incidental." Racism as a scientific concept is dead.
But science does not just discover; it invents. In recent years, some major
figures, such as Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy, have wrung their
hands over the prospect that science may invent a new "race" of
intelligent life that will turn around and destroy humanity. Fortunately,
this seems far less likely than the prospect that we will deliberately or
carelessly kill ourselves off with our technology. No need to invent someone
else to do the job!
Similarly, Francis Fukuyama, among others, has even suggested that
biotechnology could bring about the artificial creation of a "master
bred from among those able to afford genetic enhancement.
An immediate fear is that science will draw new "racial" dividing
among people. Could genetic discrimination replace our cruder prejudices of
the past? Certainly. Potential mates might demand a review copy of their
intended's genome. Who can say what biases would creep in. Perhaps all the
descendents of pharonic mummies would find themselves excluded. Already,
genetic profiling has raised fears that people carrying genes making them
liable to, say, breast cancer or Alzheimer's may be denied employment or
health insurance if their "secret" gets out.
By the same token, though, genetic research may help to erase ancient lines
that divide. Controversial research, for example, suggests that Palestinians
and Jews are genetically indistinguishable, a fact that may help to
undermine some of the dogmas of hate on both sides.
Science must always pursue the truth. Still, as a human institution, it does
have obligations to society. Albert Einstein, whose equations opened the
door to nuclear weapons, urged President Roosevelt to develop them as the
Nazi war machine threatened Europe. But he also, near the end of his life,
joined Bertrand Russell in calling for nuclear disarmament. Whether one
agrees with either of his stands, Einstein must be credited with a sense of
Today, few of the scientists engaged in genetic research speak frankly to
the public about the ethical issues implicit in them. Even fewer speak out
Both science and religion, and the people who lead those institutions, have
a historical debt that has not been fully discharged. The time has come to
beat the pincers into plowshares.
1 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. (New
York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 71.
2 Diamond, 72.
3 Matt Kelley, "American Indian boarding schools: 'That hurt never goes
away'" (The Associated Press, April 28, 1999)
5 William Lee Miller, Arguing About Slavery: the Great Battle in the
States Congress. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 139.
6 Shih-shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America.
and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 1986), 42-44.
7 Tsai, 44-45.
8 Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981)
9 Gould, 46.
10 Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain. (New York: Random House, 1979), 5.
11 Robert Singerman, "The Jew as Racial Alien," in Anti-Semitism in
History. Edited by David A. Gerber. (Urbana and Chicago: University of
Illinois Press, 1986), 109.
12 Cornell West, The Cornell West Reader. (New York: Basic Civitas Books,
13 George Bourne, A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument; By a Citizen of
Virginia. (New York, S.W. Bennett, 1845)
14For more on this topic, see Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences: The
Theory in Practice. (New York: Basic Books, 1993.)
16 Diamond, 376-401.
17 For a quick explication of these concepts, visit:
18 For more on this, see the Anti Defamation League's site at
19 Steve Olson, "The Genetic Archaeology of Race," in The Atlantic
20 A chilling instance of how such research generates controversy may be
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